With only five games left in what has been a mystifying and unpredictable Champions League campaign, the four best teams in Europe begin their respective battles for a spot in the final of the world’s best club competition. Real Madrid, Juventus, and Atletico Madrid are regulars at this stage, with all three being involved in a final over the last two years, but Monaco’s youth-and-Falcao-powered attack could be the one to steal the show from the traditional powers.
Let’s start there: Monaco should not be playing at this late of a stage. Sure, the French side will most likely win Ligue 1 (they are up 3 points with one less game played over domestic rivals PSG), but theirs is a side filled with potential, one that was not expected to deliver the way it has. A relatively lucky draw helped them through the group stage with few problems (perennial Europe underachievers Tottenham Hotspur could have made things more interesting if they weren’t, you know, Tottenham), and drawing Manchester City in the round of 16 played directly to their attacking strengths–the aggregate tie ended 6-6, with the French side advancing on away goals.
But it was all supposed to end in the quarterfinals against a Borussia Dortmund team that had the attacking tools to keep up, and a defense that could at least hold steady against Monaco’s veteran-and-teenager frontline of Falcao and 18-year-old prodigy Kylian Mbappé. Instead, the tragic bombing of Dortmund’s bus understandably rattled the German side, and they couldn’t overcome having to play two games within 8 days of the attack. So, Monaco’s luck, morbid and mundane, got them farther in the competition than they had been since their final run in 2004. The problem is that their luck ran out with the semifinal draw, and they got paired up against not only the arguably best team remaining, but also the best defense bar none.
Juventus has given up two goals in the entirety of the Champions League this season. That’s two goals in ten games, for a goals per game ratio of 0.2 a.k.a. certifiably insane. The Serie A frontrunners and likely champions also just shut down the only other attack in the world statistically compareable to Monaco, as they strolled to a 3-0 aggregate win over a Barcelona side riding high off of their miraculous PSG comeback (the Paris side is taking a beating in this column). That Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri can throw out Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in the middle of defense is unfair enough, but that he can sub the fine wine that is Andrea Barzagli for an impenetrable three-man defense is brutal.
That’s not to say Juventus are a throwback, park-the-bus side of Italian days gone by; with Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala, the Old Lady has a one-two punch of Argentinian scoring firepower, and Dybala especially is on fire after scoring two beautiful goals to effectively beat Barcelona by himself last round. Monaco will find it tough enough to break down Juventus’ brick wall of a defense (and the immortal Gigi Buffon in goal), but they might find it tougher to keep their rivals from scoring themselves. One thing is for sure: it’ll be a lot of fun to watch the young kids (and Falcao) try.
On the other side of the bracket is a matchup that non-La Liga fans might be tired of seeing: Atletico Madrid against Real Madrid. This is the fourth straight year that the Spanish capital sides will face off in the Champions League, with two of those matchups coming in the final of the tournament. Atletico Madrid must also hate seeing their intra-city rivals, having come out on the losing side in all three previous matchups, and by the smallest margins possible; their only loss by more than one goal was the 2014 final, but they led 1-0 until Sergio Ramos’ last-gasp equalizer, which led to Real running rampant in extra time.
Things might not look good for the colchoneros this time around, as they have been up-and-down in La Liga, oscillating between third and fourth since the standings settled. However, under El Cholo Diego Simeone, Atletico has been Juventus’ main rival for the top defense crown, and that has not wavered this year: they have only given up 25 goals in domestic play, and five in ten Champions League games.
Real Madrid has, at times, been the best club in the world this season, but when they’re off their game, they are intensely not fun to watch; when their sheer talent doesn’t overwhelm lesser opposition, the giants of Spain turn into a crossing machine, relying on brute strength and Ramos’ late game heroics to sit at the top of La Liga. The famed trident of BBC (Bale, Benzema, and Cristiano) have not played much together this season due to injuries, and when they have, the results have had Madridistas calling for the break-up of the team’s iconic forward line. Brazilian Casemiro has been a rock for Madrid, but he has twice now narrowly (and controversially) avoided red cards in high-profile games; can he keep his cool against a hated rival?
The Champions League semifinal also comes at the worst possible time for Real; following their epic, last-second loss to Barcelona in El Clasico, the merengues have a grueling schedule to close out the season, including two ties against Atletico, one against Sevilla, and a season-closing road trip to Malaga that could prove tricky. They will also be missing Bale for at least the first leg on Tuesday, although that might be a blessing in disguise, as it will allow Isco to continue his good form on a bigger stage, with Colombian captain James Rodríguez serving as another option. Regardless, we know what to expect from a Madrid derby at this stage of the Champions League: it’s going to be cagey, it’s going to be defensive, it’ll come down to set pieces, and it will be frustrating to watch as a neutral.
Despite the likelihood that the favorites sweep en route to a Real Madrid-Juventus final in Cardiff at the end of May, both Atletico and Monaco provide the opportunity for a Cinderella story. Can Atletico finally defeat Real Madrid and claim their first-ever Champions League trophy? Can Monaco’s team deliver on the biggest stage of them all before the top teams raid their talent this summer? Or will Juventus’ defense and Real’s talent keep things predictable? Whatever the result, the semifinals of the Champions League should deliver